'Gwen'

No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani isn’t just an immortal pop superstar; she’s a fashion brand. Unfortunately, brands don't last forever.

Illustration by Anita Kunz 

Gwen Stefani, one of the most recognizable pop stars on the planet, arrived in New York for Fashion Week 2005 on a billowing cloud of success, good will, and public acclaim. Only two years before, the front woman for Anaheim’s No Doubt had launched her L.A.M.B. fashion line to breathless press coverage, and it reportedly was bringing in annual revenues of $40 million at high-end retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Henri Bendel, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale’s. 

That week’s runway premiere of her latest collection was the hottest of the sizzling Fashion Week tickets, and Stefani’s rock ’n’ roll cache was obvious. Lines snaked along West 52nd Street, as buyers, fashion writers, and fans—many of the latter wearing low-riding jeans and tank tops, Stefani-style—clamored to get inside Roseland Ballroom. 

Then 36, the chanteuse from the most famous band to hail from Orange County was riding high. Stefani’s first solo album, 2004’s “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.”—thus, the acronym L.A.M.B—produced a string of hits, including “Hollaback Girl” and “Rich Girl.” The songs’ lavishly produced videos referenced Stefani’s fashion sensibilities, and it didn’t hurt that she’d appeared as original platinum-blond sex symbol Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator.”

At Fashion Week, Stefani appeared in a tank top, L.A.M.B.-lettered sweatpants, and signature red lipstick.  Onlookers saw a mindboggling stage production with eclectic musical accompaniment, dry-ice smoke, and low-rider cars. Mounted for $1 million, well above the typical runway production, the still-talked-about presentation evoked Stefani influences as disparate as “The Sound of Music,” Rastafarians, pirates, “The Great Gatsby”—and her home turf, where she said she found inspiration in O.C. “cholo girls.” It all unfolded before an A-list crowd that included Sarah Ferguson, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Faith Hill, Lenny Kravitz, Bijou Phillips, Kelly Osbourne, and Nicky Hilton. Anna Wintour from Vogue was there, too, and Stefani shrewdly bestowed her first end-of-show kiss on the fashion world’s most influential editor rather than musician-husband Gavin Rossdale.

Soon thereafter, the pricey L.A.M.B. spun off the cutesy Harajuku Lovers line of accessories and more affordable apparel. Both labels would go on to partner with Coty Prestige for fragrances. By 2010 the fashion press was touting combined annual retail sales for the two lines of $150 million to $200 million—not bad for someone who likes to call herself “just a girl,” and talk about how she never, ever thought all this would happen to her.  

But that was then. 

Today, as Stefani and No Doubt bandmates continue to promote last September’s “Push and Shove,” the group’s first album in 11 years, the L.A.M.B. and Harajuku Lovers apparel that once was available in this country at hundreds of retail outlets, including high profile department stores, is now sold mostly online and at specialty stores. (A Stefani handler called sales "vibrant" at more than 100 such stores in the U.S., and said the line is carried in an equal number overseas, though she declined to provide sales figures.) The signature fragrances are wafting away. As of last year, Coty quietly discontinued its L.A.M.B. products in the U.S.—while maintaining partnerships with Beyoncé, Céline Dion, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and others.

Celebrity lines come and go, and come and go: Success is especially elusive, or transitory, in the mercurial rag trade. Mandy Moore ended her contemporary teen line in 2009. That same year J-Lo put her much-touted Sweetface line on hiatus—and since has partnered for a new one with Kohl’s. Kanye West has had several high-profile launches, and flops. Hugely popular as the star of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker fizzled in fashion. But even as Stefani’s signature duds no longer line department store racks, L.A.M.B.’s founder has maintained her cool. No one expects Orange County’s ultimate grrrlpower icon to pack up her fabrics and notions anytime soon.

It all began, of course, with Stefani’s singular sense of personal style. Sometimes likened to the cartoon character Betty Boop because of her bright red lipstick and boop-boop-a-doop voice, the Gwen Stefani who led No Doubt to global fame strutted and cartwheeled across stages in parachute pants, primary colored midriff-baring tank tops, and Doc Martens. When the band performed in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1997, music writer Mark Bialczak called her “the Madonna of the new generation,” noting, “The singer had just as much of the vamp as Madonna—and a bit of the tramp. And she was as foul-mouthed, too.” That same year Newsweek rock critic Karen Schoemer said she was “setting a new standard for icky sexiness”—what Schoemer dubbed “skank appeal.” 

On that tour the tomboyish Stefani sometimes wore a bindi   —the decoration Indian women wear on their foreheads in celebration of femininity and strength. Later, on a shopping excursion at a Midwestern mall, she saw a bindi kit. “Before I did that tour,” Stefani told The New York Times, “you were not seeing [that kind of thing] at Nordstrom.”

Then came tour dates in Japan, and an introduction to Tokyo’s Harajuku district, a hangout for hipster teens. “They were all about self-expression through fashion and this whole pingpong match between Eastern and Western, and how we steal each other’s ideas,” Stefani said at the time.

As early as 1996 the singer was dropping hints about her desire to start a fashion line. She was working with stylist Deborah Viereck, whose celebrity clients included Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell, and Marilyn Manson, for whom Viereck created a satanic look. As the stylist told Women’s Wear Daily: “[Stefani] goes through phases. At first it was like a Chicano gang member look, but with touches like reflective strips. Then she started getting real sparkly. We do things that catch the light a lot, like sequin pants. … Contrast is one of the most important elements of her clothing. It’s almost like a cartoon-animated style.”

The fashion press paid attention. Women’s Wear Daily called her a “wacky pop princess.” A 1997 Los Angeles Times piece about Stefani was headlined “Gidget Goes Punk.” She became a charismatic force to pre-teen and teenage girls. 

“I sort of evolved with her. I looked to her for inspiration,” says Jamie Stone, founder and editor-in-chief of the fashion-beauty-celebrity site queenofthequarterlifecrisis.com. Just 12 when she became a Stefani fan, Stone remembers, “When you’re that age all you want to do is to blend in, to look like everyone else. But you’d see Gwen wearing these really crazy things with such confidence that you’d feel you could do that, too.” 

Stefani’s looks weren’t just of the moment. Still an unabashed Stefani fan, Stone reminds, “She’s been rocking the leopard print and the houndstooth   before they were popular with everyone else. She’s a style setter.”

Stylist Andrea Lieberman, who was pivotal in introducing the singer to haute couture, has called Stefani a “visionary.” But not all of Stefani’s fashion choices were prudent, such as the time she wore a mouthful of braces,  strictly for looks, on New Year’s Eve 1999 when No Doubt performed R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” live on MTV. Her lips kept catching on the braces as she was trying to sing the complex lyrics. Humiliated, she later locked herself in a closet and cried.   

Still, Stefani’s image was taking shape, enhanced by more glammed-up looks. She teamed with celebrity stylist Jessica Paster and their collaborations were featured in an Us Weekly spread that scrutinized Stefani’s style and fashion secrets—and what the magazine hailed as some of 2001’s most creative outfits seen at red-carpet affairs: Stefani in a John Galliano lace dress for Christian Dior (“Retro Prom Queen”); in bikini top with a Jean Paul Gaultier tuxedo with cutout back (“Black-Tie Sexy”); and looking gang-girl in vintage Levi’s with exposed Fruit of the Loom men’s briefs, striped midriff top with exposed bejeweled bra, truck driver hat, and knuckle rings    (“Urban Tomboy”).

Thinking back to those varied looks, Paster—who has spent 16 years dressing Hollywood notables, and who is chief stylist for justfab.com—stresses: “When you work with Gwen, it’s collaborative. She brings a lot to the table.”  

Everyone in entertainment—musicians, actors, reality stars, you name it—is angling to be the brand that fills the closets of an admiring public, but Stefani is one of the few who actually can thread up a sewing machine.

During her four years at Anaheim’s Loara High School, Stefani made her clothes, often repurposing local thrift store finds. “I’d peg the pants and cut the shirts,” she once said. At the school’s talent show, she performed “I Have Confidence” (novice nun Maria’s anthem in “The Sound of Music”) in her own Julie Andrews knockoff dress. Later, in early gigs with No Doubt, Stefani customized the band’s T-shirts, and created her own costumes.  

Richard Alan White, who today works in TV broadcasting, filmed cutting-edge bands in the early ’90s—including No Doubt. Currently at work on a book called “Confessions of a Rock ’n’ Roll Cameraman,” White captured charming—and telling—footage of a fresh-faced Stefani when the group performed at UC Irvine in 1991. The film (see it at orangecoast.com/stefani) shows Stefani brandishing a glue gun as she works on and talks about a jailhouse costume she’s made. (Musical note: Stefani wears a more streamlined jailhouse costume in her “The Sweet Escape” video.) Off camera, White asks if she wants to be a big star and tour the world. Responds a then-shy Stefani: “Yes. I want to be a star.” 

L.A.M.B. began in 2003, a collaboration with LeSportsac on guitar-strap hobo bags and “punker” wristbands. Then came the apparel, a line of wristwatches, and the click-clack of teetering high-heeled shoes and fashion footwear. Harajuku Lovers followed, unleashing the Harajuku Girls, four backup dancers who accompanied Stefani on PR ventures and on tour. They’re also seen in some of her videos, including the synergistic “Rich Girl” which includes shout-outs to L.A.M.B. and Stefani’s designer icons, Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. The videos also were showcases for Stefani’s undeniable beauty, which in turn led to a contract representing L’Oreal Paris. For Stefani’s admirers, mascara and lip gloss became even more significant. 

During Fashion Week 2005, the L.A.M.B. line reflected what fashion writer Samantha Critchell called “a mix of silver-screen siren, gangsta girl, California mall rat, and Hello Kitty.” It included 60-plus different looks including floor-length hoodies, belted hot pants, a jersey tank gown with graffitilike L.A.M.B. initials, flouncy and feminine floral print dresses, gowns of see-through netting, diagonally striped tracksuits, and accessories that included woolen rasta caps.

She didn’t do it alone. “Everybody out there has a team of people behind them. That’s just the way it is,” she told The New York Times, citing her head designer Zaldy Goco and stylist-creative director Lieberman, who now has her own line. Conceded Stefani: “Before, I thought I actually had to do all the drawing. Now I know that what you really are is a producer. Not every single idea has to be mine.”

When discussing L.A.M.B., Stefani has never sounded disingenuous. Pressed by Glamour, she once admitted that a fashion career was her backup plan, explaining, “I know I need to feel passionate and be creative to have a feeling of self-worth. So when the music part goes away, I want to be able to still feel the power I feel when I write songs.” 

 

Stefani's every career move, as well as some personal ones, have been the topic of media coverage. Women’s magazines and fashion rags, in particular, delight in asking about her sons, Kingston James McGregor, 6, and Zuma Nesta Rock, 4, and how their rock ’n’ roll fashion designer mom does it all while maintaining those fabulous abs. Stefani plays along—but is gifted at deflecting questions she doesn’t want to answer.

Pre-motherhood, Stefani’s interviews had a rowdy tone, peppered with the f-word. More recent interviews suggest she has matured, or at least undergone serious media coaching. She now keeps her language and emotions in check, in comments that collectively are cookie-cutter: She hates having to work out, but does it anyway so she can wear the clothes she likes; it’s tough being a working mom; she loves, loves, loves to shop; given her druthers, she’d spend her time in bed, watching TV and snacking; she wants to look good in order to please her matinee idol-handsome husband,  the front man for the rock band Bush and a topic of tabloid chatter in his own right. The couple marked their 10th anniversary last September. A paparazzo photographed the smiling pair holding hands on a celebratory night out. 

Stefani hasn’t said that much, lately, about her fashion lines for grown-ups, but has admitted that her multicareer and family responsibilities are a tough balancing act. (This despite her TV spots for the new Windows Phone that make multitasking look so easy.) “I was definitely swimming upstream,” she told Marie Claire while promoting “Push and Shove.” “There’s no way to do all these things.” She was a no-show at the most recent Fashion Weeks because they conflicted with her kids’ school schedule, telling Britain’s Elle: “I can’t miss the first week of kindergarten. I just can’t.”

Kingston’s kindergarten debut coincided with L.A.M.B.’s hiring of designer Paula Bradley to do “the heavy lifting,” according to Vogue.  

If she's stepping back from one line, though, Stefani has cleverly fused her status as rock-fashion’s coolest mom into a high-profile relationship with Target on Harajuku Mini,  a fanciful fashion line for babies and children, with prices ranging from $4 to $30. Says Target’s Erica Julkowski: “Stefani’s playful style and unique design aesthetic made her an ideal partner.” As of January, that playful style extends to dressing up stuffed animals: Harajuku Lovers teamed with Build-A-Bear Workshop stores for Harajuku Hugs, a line of fashions for kids’ furry friends. All this kid stuff gives her an ideal customer base for the future, when the tykes are grown and ready to buy Harajuku Lovers or L.A.M.B. 

But other partnerships are ending. “We have no future plans to produce any new fragrances with Gwen Stefani,” says Coty representative Brittany Crump. Meanwhile, the Harajuku fragrance line has been relegated to what are known as “tier-three retailers” such as T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s. As for L.A.M.B., Nordstrom and Macy’s carry the label’s lethal-looking shoes—Stefani's rep says they’re the most successful of all celebrity line footwear— but clothing is tough to find. Owners of several local boutiques say they stopped buying a few seasons back when it ceased appealing to their customers.

“It got too mod,” says Christina Armijo, co-owner of Skye Montgomery in Corona del Mar. “But we loved it in the beginning.”   

 

It’s difficult to tell if Stefani is distressed by the ebbing of her fashion enterprises, because she isn’t talking. At least not to us. Multiple requests to speak with her and her backup team about her work in the world of needles and threads, and the business side of fashion, were turned down or ignored. Only as we neared deadline for this story did a Stefani rep speak to us, briefly, and then only for purposes of clarification. She also stressed that Stefani “absolutely plans to keep her lines going and growing,” and that talks are underway with potential new licensees.

True, Stefani’s been busy. Since the fall release of “Push and Shove,” she’s been front and center in much of the coverage of No Doubt’s return. The album drew mixed reviews. Metacritic, the aggregate website that compiles reviews of major critics, gave it a 61 out of a possible 100. Its first week it was at No. 3 on the Billboard 200; by early December, it was at No. 81. Stefani and crew—bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont, and drummer Adrian Young—delivered well-received performances at industry gigs, including the MTV European and the American Music awards, and performed sold-out concerts at the 6,000-seat Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal City. Just as she’d done when the band was on the rise, Stefani stole the spotlight with her take-no-prisoners performances, aided by attention-getting outfits such as the ultrashort glittery dress, fishnets, and black boots she wore at the Gibson, still rocking it at 43.   

Bypassed for Grammy nominations, No Doubt nonetheless was among the nominees for favorite band at this year's People’s Choice Awards before losing out to Maroon 5. The group marked its comeback with its own clothing line, in collaboration with British brand Fred Perry, which reportedly will “honor” No Doubt’s (long ago and left behind) ska and reggae roots.

But the celebrity design field is littered with fashion victims. “Celebrity brand partnerships can work, and they do work, and they’re a really important part of the industry,” explains Loretta Soffe, an independent consultant for fashion and retail. “But they need to be treated with such caution. The product has to speak for itself and it has to reflect the style and the DNA of the celebrity. The second it doesn’t is the second that the brand doesn’t mean anything.”

Soffe formerly served as executive vice president for women’s apparel at Nordstrom when Stefani’s line was the cornerstone brand for the Advance Contemporary department. “Oh my God, it was huge,” she remembers. “We launched it with Gwen. We did a lot of advertising, some personal appearances … .” When L.A.M.B. stopped performing for Nordstrom, the store stopped buying. “It hadn’t evolved in terms of style,” says Soffe. “Look, there’s a bell curve to everything. When Gwen created the L.A.M.B. collection it was at the beginning of that bell curve … Now there are a ton of celebrity designers and they’re at every [price] range.”

The roll call is headed by twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen—who last September were named top womenswear designers by the Council of Fashion Designers of America for their upscale brand, The Row (they also have the more accessible Elizabeth & James line)—and Jessica Simpson, whose celeb line is expected to be the first to crack more than $1 billion in retail sales. Others in the fray include Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Lopez, the Kardashians, Nicole Richie, Daisy Fuentes, Katie Holmes (a newbie), Yoko Ono (another newbie, whose trippy menswear line is inspired by late husband John Lennon), and Lauren Conrad, who found fame—and her celebrity brand—as a result of the 2004-06 MTV reality series “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.”

Even as her own fashion empire transitions, Stefani has been photographed in great designer clothes, sometimes her own, for covers and fashion spreads, including Vogue’s January issue. “She’s more than a fashionista. She’s a fashion icon,” reminds stylist Jessica Paster. That much was evident last fall when she posed for the cameras with fashion empress Anna Wintour at a Los Angeles event sponsored by Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Stefani was striking in a streamlined black tux with visible black bra.

Last summer she hosted a campaign fundraiser for President Obama at her Beverly Hills home. Billed as a “Sunday of Fun,” the family-friendly event with tickets starting at $2,500 featured balloon animals and temporary tattoos for the kids, and one very special guest. “I’ve gotten to hang out with the queen, a couple of queens and kings and princes … but this—this is cool,” said Michelle Obama, the most stylish first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy, getting a laugh from the Hollywood crowd. The first lady was elegant in a sleeveless navy blue dress with detailing at the waist and flat sandals with silver detail.   

Stefani? She was in a hot-pink peplum top with matching hot-pink skinny pants, worn with black leather stilettos, chunky silver bracelets, and her hair in a top-knot. The pink was complemented by pink and white flowers that snaked up the side of the house where Stefani and her bandmates were seated. More than 25 years after she began stitching together her fashion sensibilities, she is still determinedly hip.

In playing the Obama card, she also was making a shrewd move in the politicized world of fashion. As so happened, Wintour is a vocal Obama supporter. Whenever Stefani’s ready to focus again on fashion and leap, stilettos first, fiercely back into that world, she’s got a ready and powerful ally.   

To order a print or digital copy of the March 2013 issue, click here.